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A Different Point of View

The Art of Drone Photography

The other day I realised that it is now nine years since I set aside my cameras and retired as a freelance photo journalist. Wow, doesn’t time fly? And, looking back, in the twenty-five years I was earning a living partly as a magazine photographer, a lot changed.

Black-and-white print film was replaced by colour transparency slides. Then the digital revolution happened. Not overnight, it has to be said. Vastly expensive digital cameras arrived on the market, but initially my editors wouldn’t accept digital images, claiming the quality was not up to that of film. Indeed, there was something slightly odd about those early images—the reds in particular looked slightly detached and overblown.

But, as the quality improved, eventually pure economics came into play. The publishers realised how much cheaper it was to lay up a digital page compared to an analogue page. I recall that inside a three-month timeframe, it went from, “no, we don’t want digital” to “we will only accept digital”, with a brief period in the middle when I was still using a medium-format film camera for the main front cover and centre spread shots, but digital for all the details, moving, and close-ups.

I continued with digital, right up until the point I decided to retire, utilising portable studio lighting, remote flashguns, and a rake of on-camera filters to achieve the effects I was after. I had a hankering to do more by way of manipulating the images with PhotoShop after the event, but often the publishing houses employed their own PhotoShop expert to do any work they felt was necessary, and the less you fiddled with the shots before you sent them, the better.

I used to carry both a small beanbag for resting the camera at ground level, and a stepladder to make use of my tripod’s maximum height, but there were plenty of times when it would have been great to be able to get much higher up.

In those days, the only way to do that was via crane or helicopter, and there simply wasn’t the budget.

There were a few drones already on the market, but they were mainly being used for surveillance or survey work.

(In fact, in BONES IN THE RIVER, the second book in my Lakes crime thriller series, I have my CSI, Grace McColl, making use of a drone operator to check a hard-to-access stretch of the River Eden for evidence. Sadly, I really couldn’t justify buying my own drone for research purposes!)

Of course, the wealthy always find a way to utilise new technology, and one of the first practical uses I witnessed first-hand for a drone was when the skipper of a mega-yacht sent one into a crowded anchorage to see if there was room for his vessel.

Then, as is always the case, the quality went up as the price came down.

Now, drone camerawork is everywhere, not just in low-budget movies, but everyday TV programmes, and many photographers are making use of this amazing extra dimension in their work. Where the only way many of us would be able to take aerial shots was with a jet engine and wing in the foreground…

… now we could achieve the most amazing angles.

The opportunities for the kind of motoring photography I used to do are endless, from taking moving pictures from impossible angles to arty high-overhead shots.

And the guesswork is taken out of it by being able to view the footage in high-quality and real time.

I have always loved that last twenty minutes of a commercial flight, when you start to near your destination and are able to view a new place from above. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spotted a scene that would make a beautiful abstract picture, but been unable to do anything about it. The possibility of having a drone and being able to capture those moments is almost enough to tempt me back into the game.

This week’s Word of the Week is flak, which means to take strong criticism, as in to catch or take flak. It comes from the German fliegerabwehrkanonen (flyer + defence + cannons) and is wartime shorthand for anti-aircraft fire. It is occasionally misspelled flack, a word of unknown etymology that may allude to a legendary 1930s movie PR man, Gene Flack. In this instance, it can be a noun (PR agent) or a verb (to provide publicity for).

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